For small businesses to thrive and create jobs here, officials need to make it easier to do business with the city. Recognizing this, Mayor Bloomberg used his State of the City address to announce his intent to streamline environmental review.
Let’s get to it - as quickly as possible. Reducing the delay, cost and unpredictability of this process is a no-downside way to ease development at a tough time for New York.
The state’s environmental review law mandates that project sponsors seeking funds or approvals from public agencies tell officials what impacts their proposals would have on the environment. It requires disclosure and suggestions for mitigating the impacts on infrastructure and services, but demands no actions beyond that. Its purpose is to inform governmental decision making, not to protect the environment. In reality, it adds time and expense to projects without serving the environment.
New York City’s version of the state rules is even more burdensome - even as it excuses itself from adhering to timetables that state agencies must respect. The complex and opaque process yields lengthy, esoteric documents written, read and understood by only a small community of technical experts.
Along with a priesthood of consultants who benefit from the system’s mysteries, those experts include employees of various city agencies required to comment on studies of traffic, air quality, and projected sewage flows. Mayor Bloomberg plans to improve the coordination among these employees. Right now, the agency leading the review (usually, but not always, the Department of City Planning) requests the help of technical experts from other agencies. With many other demands on their time, these specialists respond as best they can, but according to the city’s rules, are not held to any specified schedule.
To project sponsors, the city’s review seems like a deep, dark hole.
The mayor wants first and foremost to help small property owners caught in the bureaucratic tangle. As an expensive and time-consuming impediment to construction, environmental review interferes worst with small enterprises that can least afford the costs of delay. In the height of the recent boom, even the most basic environmental assessment could cost five figures to perform, with larger efforts ranging from a low-end of $100,000 to more than $2.5 million. And these figures don’t account for the cost to the city in lost direct and indirect tax revenues and economic activities, as projects are delayed or shelved. In the current climate, delay harms not just the projects themselves, but the entire economy.
Mayor Bloomberg is right to take on environmental review. But he needs to go beyond tinkering with organization charts and updating agency computer systems. Reducing the timeframes noticeably - and adding transparency to a significant government process - means demanding that city agencies meet defined deadlines. To accomplish this, the mayor can simply declare that city agencies will follow the same timelines state agencies do. Similarly, in place of open-ended environmental assessments, the city should adopt New York State’s two-page form to determine whether a proposal warrants further study.
Streamlining environmental review is not just about figuring out how to do more of the same things with fewer resources. At this take-a-breath moment, City Hall has an opportunity to figure out how to do the right things - getting out of the way of small endeavors and really examining large ones, ensuring that all the infrastructure and services needed will be there as New York develops.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News